Saturday, May 21, 2011

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

Umayyad Mosque

Umayyad is the most impressive mosque I visited in the Middle East. No wonder, its architectural and decorative splendor ranks with Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. But for me, Umayyad's was even more impressive. Its huge open courtyard with white limestone floor framed by three two-storey arched arcades gave me a feeling of awe and expansion that I did not feel while at the Dome of Rock. Not to mention that my visit here was very relaxed, without loads of tourists, metal detectors and even body search at the entrance. The atmosphere is so tense at the Dome of the Rock that it cuts into the enjoyment of the place. Besides, it is very hard for non-Muslims to go inside the mosque. At Umayyad, I could go into the prayer room, on the fourth side of the facade and all mausoleums. This mosque is second in sanctity only to the mosques of Mecca and Medina and it has a very unique history.

This site has been used for religious purposes since the 9th century BC when Aramaens built a temple to their god Hadad mentioned in the Book of Kings in the Old Testament. During pagan, and through Roman times, it was a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter. After Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the former pagan shrine was replaced by a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, whose head is believed to rest in a casket in the main prayer hall.

In AD 636, with Muslim dominance, the eastern part of the basilica was converted into a mosque and Christians were allowed to worship in the western part. But 70 years later, when Damascus became the capital of the Islamic world, the Roman and Byzantine constructions were destroyed. In its place, the grand mosque was built, taking 10 years, more than 1000 stonemasons and seven years of taxes from the whole of Syria. It was show time. As declared by the caliph of the day, Khaled ibn al-Walid, be was to build “a mosque the equal of which was never designed by anyone before me or anyone after me.”

There were several mausoleums at the site. I saw many black-clad Iranians, Shiite Muslims full of devotion, repeating some kind of “mantra” with watery eyes kissing the shrine of Hussein in the eastern side of the courtyard. Hussein is the son Ali and grandson of the Prophet. He was killed by the Umayyads at Kerbala in Iraq and his body rests here in Damascus at this mosque. The mausoleum of Hussein's daughter is also in the area, where a mosque was build around it, Sayyida Rugayya Mosque. Last but not least, the mausoleum of Salad ad-Din, the fighter of western crusades who died in Damascus in 1193 also rests in peace here after fighting all his life for Islam.

In a mixture of pagan, roman, byzantine and Islamic history, another interesting aspect of this mosque is the Minaret of Jesus, the tallest, in the southeastern corner. According to local tradition, this is where Christ will appear or earth on Judgment Day. I wish to be here when that happens.

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